Demystifying the Educational Gap among Latinos.
By Karina Flores-Hurley.
For decades, the state of education among Latinos has been a gloomy one: higher dropout rates, language barriers, lack of acculturation and access to resources — the list goes on.
However, experts in the field have started to notice an upward trend in the last decade. The findings state that educational achievement is proportional to the population’s growth in the nation’s public K-12 schools and colleges, although still at a slower pace.
The same trend takes place at a more granular level and as it pertains to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) careers. According to the Department of Education, the percentage of Hispanic students enrolled in STEM fields has increased 33 percent since 1996. However, they score lower than national averages on math and science achievement tests and enroll at lower levels; which results in an underrepresentation of STEM careers.
There’s no question that education remains an important issue for Hispanics, with almost 83 percent of them citing it as “very important to their vote in the 2016 election” according to Pew’s Research Center most recent data; so indifference towards education it’s not one of them.
Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic Research at the Pew Research Center, not only follows the opinions and attitudes of Latinos as it pertains to education, but also has an inspirational story of his own.
Lopez grew up in California to Mexican parents who didn’t attend college. But the understanding of the power of education was ever-present at home.
“For the family, education had always been important but I was the first that left California, that left somewhere,” Lopez shares. “My parents believed very much in being supportive all the way through.”
Lopez went on to obtain a Ph.D. in economics from Princeton University and then taught at the University of Maryland, where he would come face to face with Latino students with similar stories.
And although we have heard of stories like Lopez’, we still fail to understand the wide array of challenges that remain. Most importantly, what is the single most important factor for academic success — what, exactly, determines who fail and who succeeds?
For the most part, the answer to this question will depend on whom you ask. Some might tell you it’s the teachers, or the complexity of the education policy; and hence the importance of research data.
According to Pew’s findings, economic factors remain a main obstacle to college enrollment. This, on the other hand, comes in combination with the influence of certain cultural factors.
“We have found that many young Latinos that leave school or college are leaving to help out family,” Lopez says. In their 2014 National Journal poll, 66 percent of Hispanic respondents who got a job or entered the military right after graduating from high school did so because they needed to help their families financially. This compared to 39 percent of Hispanic non-white participants that answered the same question.
Despite remaining challenges, Hispanic high school dropout rates are at a record low at 12 percent based on the most recent data available (2014). Although this rate remains higher than that of other minorities such as Blacks (7 percent) and Asians (1 percent), the trend is encouraging.
Academic Success Matters
Organizations such as the Gates Foundation continue to promote their own path to success, a formula that combines a teacher-student approach founded in the passion for learning. This team of educators and policy experts work with schools as well as third-party partners to prepare all students for academic success in college and their future careers.
“What we know from research and from looking at other high-performing countries around the world, is that one of the key ingredients of ensuring that all kids—particularly kids who are at risk—are graduating with the right level of skills, is that you have high and common academic standards,” says Sandra Licon from the K12 program at the Gates Foundation. “High because we know that if kids are going to be ready to go to careers at college they need to be performing at high academic levels; and common because kids travel from district to district.”
Licon explained that even when kids don’t travel from district to district, their zip code should not define their academic success and put them at a disadvantage with kids that live in more affluent areas or in states in which schools have higher expectations for kids.
As the minority with the highest college readiness gap, Hispanics continue to be a big piece of the puzzle.
During last year’s Hispanic Heritage Month, Diana Calderon, a high school student from Yorktown High in Arlington, Va., and a member of the non-profit organization Latinas Leading Tomorrow (LLT), was invited to the White House to introduce president Obama and Vice-President Biden amongst the cheers of her peers.
In her speech, Calderon became the face of many: Living in the U.S. since she was a little girl, she came with her family from El Salvador as the family pursued new opportunities that they couldn’t have back home in El Salvador.
“Fast forward to 2015 and thanks to my mother and father, the support of Latinas Leading Tomorrow, and many mentors, I now see myself as a leader and I’ve learned many lessons along the way,” Calderon said.
According to Lopez, research shows that young women students are outpacing their male counterparts in obtaining a college degree. In a study based on U.S. Census Bureau data, Lopez found that 71 percent of recent female graduates were enrolled in college by 2012 versus 61 percent of males, a percentage that has remained unchanged since the last decade.
Some scholars cited in the 2014 study attribute the increase to the less drastic labor market barriers women face today, or the higher incidence of disciplinary problems among boys. A few initiatives have been created in response to this trend and hope to address the issue so that male college achievement doesn’t remain stagnant.
In the meantime, Hispanics will continue to climb the ladder of academic achievement.
“An educated Latina is a powerful Latina, which is why my aim is to go to college,” Calderon said. “Education is a gateway to my goals. I believe our quest for knowledge should never end.”
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